Reflections on bigotry, history and decency from Salonica, ke fue “La Madre de Israel”

Ten minutes after Kayla and I arrived at the AirBnb, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. The owner of the house was a very sweet woman; she even brought us Greek pastries and oranges to welcome us. As she was leaving, she suggested we check out the makeshift guidebook she’d put together. We already had a sense of how we were going to spend much of the next 70-some hours in Salonica (Thessaloniki), but I browsed her guidebook anyway. On the second page, I saw the suggestion that struck me like a blow:


I think I was struck so hard because of what I was expecting to see, and what I did not see. ”Three religions in my city,” she had written, and my mind already filled in the blanks. Then I read: ”Ancient Greek, Christianism, Islam.” She was a kind person; I choose to believe that she wrote it like this out because of oversight or ignorance, rather than something darker.  Still, I was surprised at how hurt I felt reading this. Salonica, or Thessaloniki as its commonly known now, was for centuries upon centuries among the most thriving Jewish cities in world. It was called “La Madre de Israel,” in the Djudio, the Judeo-Español, its Sephardic Jewish residents spoke. It was a majority Jewish city less than 100 years ago. Three religions in my city. “Ancient Greek.”

This was three days ago. Kayla and I just returned, this morning, from our first trip to Salonica. I plan on writing much more about the city. In the meantime, though, before the reflections bake, I wanted to jot down a few initial thoughts and feelings I had after spending these days there (and reading a bunch in preparation).

History, On One Foot

Alternately called Salonica, or Salonico, or Salonique, or Thessaloniki, or Saloniki. La Madre de Israel. After the expulsion from Spain, tens of thousands of Jews joined the already extant Jewish community in the city; under the Ottoman Empire, Jewish culture thrived there, printing presses and newspapers and poets and doctors and port-workers; later, cultural groups, sporting groups; Socialists, Communists, Zionists, Assimilationists. For many years, the city’s de facto day of rest was Shabbat, for Jews and non-Jews alike.

There were a series of disasters — some of them random, like a massive fire in 1917, others geopolitical, like the Great Population transfer between Greek and Turkey in 1923, others direct and malicious, like the government-sponsored, newspaper-incited pogrom-style riots in the Campbell neighborhood in 1931 — which affected the Jews of Salonica directly. Many of the Jews of Salonica, who had been a majority in the city in before 1917, left the city after each of these events, some for France, others for Palestine, others for the US, and others elsewhere. Still, many thousands remained until the Holocaust, when the Nazis deported and murdered some 96% of the remaining Jews; I’ve heard estimates ranging from 45,000-55,000 Salonican Jews who were gassed and burned in Auschwitz. There is a single memorial for the murdered Jews of Salonica; it is a beautiful statue, but situated at the edge of a crowded parking lot. According to an article by journalist Giorgos Christedes, the sign marking the memorial is defaced so often that the Jewish Community of Salonica – who number over 1,000 today – have bought dozens of replacements, preemptively.**


History, Under Your Feet

Today, walking around Salonica, unless you know where to look, it can seem as if Jews never set foot in the city. “Ancient Greeks,” as it were. There is a Jewish History App, which tells you the locations of old synagogues and schools and community centers, but what you see is only the nothingness. The Fidik Synagogue, for example, looked like this:


But if you know where to look, which we did thanks to the guidance and wisdom of Iosif Vaena, a brilliant Jewish pharmacist who lives in Salonica today, and knows a breathtaking amount about Salonica, past and present, you figure out that at least one physical remnant of Salonica is literally built into the city, in a haunting, symbolic way. When the few Jews of Salonica who survived in Auschwitz returned to La Madre de Israel, they found that their homes and businesses had been taken over in the meantime by their Christian neighbors. I heard multiple stories of Jews who had to battle in courts for years in order to reclaim a single room in their old homes. Most of the survivors did not remain in Salonica. The Jewish graveyard of Salonica, which had once had over 350,000 tombs, had been turned into construction material; Iosif showed us pictures of churches and buildings with tombstones engraved in Hebrew and Judeo-Español literally built into the walls. Then he took us to a pile of discarded gravestones, not far from the cafe where we were sitting.


I’m not usually moved by gravestones, per se. I was shivering, though, standing here, and not only because the evening was growing cold.


“Edad de 85 años,” the inscription reads in Judeo-Español, “85 years of age.” It is written in Hebrew characters, and then lists the Hebrew date of death. This tombstone was nameless.


The next one was in Hebrew: “The Pleasant Student, Ya’akov Ben HaRav Shmuel.” I can’t figure out what the third line says*, the fourth and fifth are the date of death, from the year 1720.


The holes in this third one, Iosif explained to us, meant that it had been used as building material, and then discarded. He has been gathering tombstones from all over Salonica, and preserving them in his pharmacy.*** These ones were too heavy, he said, for him to carry back, so they lay there in the grass, mostly unnoticed.  Here is an interview with Iosif about his project collecting the tombstones, and his reflections on his city.

The Jews of Salonica, Today

I wandered around the marketplace at dusk, near the streets where I thought Iosif had told me I had to go. The address wasn’t listed online. After a few moments, a big man in a dark jacket called out to me, in English: “It’s here.”

“Oh, uh, yeah?” I asked.

“You’re Israeli, yes?”

“How did you kn…” I began to mumble, and then stopped, as he led me inside the completely unmarked synagogue.

Kabbalat Shabbat was emotional. I haven’t felt so happy to be at Shabbat services in a long time, but that is a different story. Or maybe it isn’t? Anyway, the Sephardic melodies were beautiful; I was more familiar with some than others, but it was easy enough for me to follow along the text, to sing softly, to just listen. The walls were covered in plaques, with the names of all of the synagogues, dating back to the before the Common Era, and then in 1300s, and then with a boom in 1492, and onwards, that were once in Salonica, and today are no more. Afterwards, I was invited to stay for dinner, juevos haminados and salads and Greek pastries. It was a beautiful, gentle evening. I played chess until late at night with a few members of the community. When I asked them if they would wear their kippot outside, they laughed.

A survey taken in 2014 showed Greece to be the most antisemitic country in Europe, with some 69% of respondents surveyed expressing some sort of antisemitic belief (“Jews talk to much about the Holocuast”; “Jews think they are better than other people”; “Jews have too much control over world affairs”; etc). Even if the reality is more nuanced than such a survey allows, which I imagine it is, and that was the sentiment expressed too by the many in the above-linked survey, there is clearly a sickness there.

In 2012, a member of Golden Dawn, Greece’s chillingly popular Neo-Nazi party, read from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in parliament; no one protested. A little glimmer of hope, I was told, comes in the form of Thessaloniki’s current mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, a 70-something year-old man with an earring in his left ear and tattoos on his right hand, and a rare commitment to commemorating Thessaloniki’s Jewish and multicultural past, and building a multicultural future.

It was hard for me not to look out onto the city and feel a sort of dull fury, a state of shock that not only were the Jews murdered and driven away, but now, today, people here have the gall to persist in their Jew-hatred. The past truly didn’t go anywhere, in Salonica.

”You’re from Israel – What do you think about what you’re doing to Palestine?”

I am not going to relate to my reflections on Israel-Palestine in this post because I feel like I must – it is legitimate for a Jew to talk about oppressions in the world without tying everything back to Israel-Palestine – but rather because I choose to, and because I did think about it often while I was there, on a number of different levels.

I have been questioned about my politics regarding Palestine multiple times, by Europeans, in Europe, as soon as it became clear that I was Israeli. At first, surprised, I would mumble answers, which, given my political predilections, would often be satisfying to the questioners. I hate the fact that my Palestine politics may make me a “Good Israeli” or a “Good Jew” to certain Europeans.

That does not mean that I will change my politics, which stem from deeply – and Jewishly – held convictions and an empathy which leads me to imagine that many Palestinians may feel something similar to what I felt in Salonica when they look at Baqa and Talbiyeh and Qatamon, a major difference being that I and my people now have citizenship status in Israel and elsewhere around the world, while so many millions of Palestinians are forced, to this day, to live as perpetual refugees.

It does mean that I will stop mumbling. I will say it clearly: It is illegitimate for a European, in Salonica or elsewhere, to grill me about my Palestine politics the moment that they find out that I am an Israeli. Period. Not once have I been asked, when I presented as an American, to justify Iraq. That’s actually not true – it happened once, in a Palestinian village, actually, inside of Israel. That felt different. An awareness of power, and an awareness of history are a sine qua non for serious, justice-oriented activism.

Zionism as Definitely Just Colonialism and Zionism as Definitely Not Just Colonialism

I’ve been thinking about this one a lot, lately, and not only in the context of Salonica. Historically speaking, Zionism is not a singular thing; multiple truths exist at once. In other words, if I put myself in the shoes of a Palestinian, I can imagine that I’d only see Zionism, historically and currently, as a colonial movement: Jews, from abroad, descended upon Palestine, stole land, killed and expelled residents, sealed borders, renamed streets and towns and cities. So: Colonialism.

However, for a European, be it in Salonica or Warsaw or Berlin or Vilna, to say, with a straight face, “Zionism is just Colonialism,” is haughty and ignorant, at best, and bigoted at worst. Colonialism, in the European model, was Brits riding to India to get rich, the French sailing to Algeria for adventure and resources. It was primarily about greed. For a European, let’s say in Salonica, let’s say who lives in the very house that was a Jewish house until not so long ago, to say that Zionism was about primarily about greed is not only historically absurd – were those Jews who managed to leave Salonica for Palestine greedy? What, precisely, would you have done had you been a Jew in Salonica then? – it is also playing into an antisemitic trope.

I mentioned some of these thoughts on Twitter, which is not always the best forum for nuance, and I want to clarify a few points here: First, I am not arguing that Europeans should not criticize Israeli policy; they should, loudly and consistently. Europeans criticizing Israel’s brutal war(s) on Gaza, or its discriminatory demolitions of homes in Area C of the West Bank, or its racist eviction of families in East Jerusalem is legitimate and crucially important. I hope it continues and increases. But I hope it continues with self-awareness; the sort of self-awareness that might make a European think twice before saying “Zionism is just Colonialism,” meaning, that Jews should not have moved to Israel-Palestine, even if they were fleeing for their lives, meaning, more or less, that a good Jew is a dead Jew.

Second, I do think that the colonialism metaphor is fair-game for anyone when referring to the 1967 occupation. If that is the argument you are making, you need to clarify that (and you still don’t have the right to grill me the first second we meet). There is a major difference between occupying land while fleeing for your life, and occupying land for the sake of power or religious fervor or territorial expansion or control. This is not a distinction I expect Palestinians to respect, certainly not so long as the Nakba is, in many ways, ongoing for them – I expect that many Palestinians would say: What do I care if you were coming to steal resources or coming to fleeing a European murderous frenzy? Either way, we experienced the same results. But this is a distinction I expect justice-minded, self-aware Europeans to make. It is a forgivable mistake, to say such a thing: people don’t always think through their words and actions. But if it ceases to be a mistake, then it ceases to be forgivable.

Softness & decency

I left Salonica feeling partially hollowed out. I also left with anger in my chest, which, certainly, in part was poured out in the above reflections and on Twitter. But I also left with a prayer for softness. A hope that I will – that we will – never cease to be startled by cruelty enacted by human beings, upon other human beings. That we will never allow ourselves to grow numb in the face of suffering. That we will learn from history – and not just in a shallow, slogan-y way, but in a deep, embodied way. That we will not choose sides to the extent of blindness, a zero-sum blindness that would snarl in your ear that if you care about Palestinians, past and present, you cannot care about the Jews in Salonica, past and present, or that if you care about Jewish suffering, past and present, then there can be no room in your heart for Palestinian suffering, past and present. We are enormous, capable, beautiful creatures, when we allow it and nurture it.

One man who I met: His grandmother and her family were hidden in a cave in another town in Greece, by a non-Jewish neighbor who risked his life, every day, for years, until it was over. They gave him their jewelry to pay for the food. He took it, and said he would spend it on food. After the war, he returned all of their jewelry to them. He had not spent it on food; but he had not wanted them to feel guilty, so he had promised them he would.

I do not believe he was an angel. I believe he was a human being. I believe that we all have the capacity to be at least a little bit more like him. I don’t know how. I believe we must try.


*Update, Monday, March 28th: While I couldn’t figure out the third line by myself, I have friends who could. There were a few different interpretations:

Aryeh Bernstein thought it was an acronym, יצ”ו נפ’ בק’ש, meaning: ישמרהו צורו ויחיהו; נפטר בקיצור שנים. ”May his creator preserve him and give him life; he passed away at a young age.”

Josh Weiner’s take on the second section, נ׳פ בק׳ש, was a bit more interpretive: ׳׳I think the third line of the tomb stone is an abbreviated form of: יעקב, ישמרהו צוּרוֹ ויחיהו, נפטר בקריאת שמע, and is a mini-midrash on his name: he said the Shema as part of the traditional formula before death, and the biblical Jacob also died as his sons said Shema. A rabbinic pun indicating respect for his piousness, and winking at those who ‘get’ it.׳׳

**Update, April 18th, 2016: Iosif Vaena clarifies: ”Indeed the Jewish Community maintains copies of street signs “Jewish Martyr’s Square” because it is defaced often but it is another square and not Eleftherias sq. in the picture.”

***Update, April 18th, 2016: Iosif asked to note that he keeps the tombstones in his pharmacy only until he can deliver them to the Jewish museum.